ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Week 3 Theme: scene-setting and dialogue

Theme for week three: setting scenes; doing dialogue


On your own blog, take the theme material and write a piece using it, a piece with scenes and plenty of dialogue.

Sometimes--in fact, lots of times--writing comes alive when people are trotted out to speak and act. You as a creative nonfiction writer need to be able to set the scene, bring out some warm bodies, make them open their mouths and talkWhen this works, you'll feel like your material is writing itself. When it doesn't work, you'll feel like you're giving the material CPR, but there's no heartbeat, no breath, and why oh why won't they let you stop?
If I knew the secret of how to get the first consistently, I wouldn't tell you! I'd quit teaching, bottle it, and make a million selling it to struggling writers. But, alas, there is no secret.Or rather there are bits and pieces of secrets.
Don't pick a topic you're too emotional about--that hurts the writing.

Don't pick a topic that blahs you out--that hurts the writing.

When setting a scene, don't go crazy with adjectives. "The busy, sprawling mall with its happy crowds of overdressed shoppers and screaming bratty kids was the place where the worst moment of my young life occurred due to the disgraceful behavior of the handsome man who had been my crazy heart's only focus for seven exhilarating years."That's not good writing! It's heading off in a thousand directions.

This is more effective: "I watched as long as I could, but finally Joe's back disappeared into the crowds of Christmas shoppers. Busy shoppers, every one too busy to notice me, sobbing on the bench where my life had just ended."A lot is left unsaid, a lot is left up to the reader to fill in. We've all been at busy malls before Christmas: we can handle it.

Doing dialogue is a real art. You might have the touch, might not. It's not simply a question of making people sound like the really sound in real life because in many cases that would be, "So, ferchrissake, who gives a, I mean who who hoo hoo hooooooo like care... cares, oh shit I'm sorry I don't know why I'm.... Arright I'm okay really but like what fucking difference does it care I mean make anyway, uh really, he doesn't know and uh really care either so what am I supposed to do when he comes crawling back like if he did I'd give a shit anyway, the big--ah, what's the use you don't want to hear this but he is, he is a just a big go ahead say it he's an asshole he's always been an asshole, even if I do love him. I'm so stupid."
I confess that, having written this, I kind of like it, even though it was supposed to be an example of bad dialogue (monologue, actually!)Let's clean the tape up a little. Journalists do this all the time without being accused of being novelists! Notice that what I'm aiming for is the tone, the essence, the truth but not the whole and exact truth that a tape recorder would catch: "It doesn't make a fucking bit of difference whether he knows or cares how I feel. All I know is that I won't give a shit-- I won't care, I swear it, I won't, I won't--not if he came crawling back on his hands and knees. He's an asshole, that's all he is, it's all he's ever been. I fell in love with an asshole, okay?--so what does that make me?"

I think the second version is tighter, tells the reader more, but it's more speechy, which isn't what you necessarily want. But I'm not revising today. I'd call that a teensy slip off the tightrope. Yes--you're walking a tightrope, creating a scene and some dialogue.

So, you know to avoid too many adjectives. What about action verbs and adverbs?

The student snarled nastily, "This course sucks."

I retorted hotly, "Nunh-unh!"


The student glared angrily at me and tittered mockingly, "It does too and so do you!"


I stared back coldly and snapped briskly, "You're out of here, pal."

Ain't that awful? (Hint: your answer begins with a 'y.') That's bad writing. It's often attractive to people who aren't sure they have really done what they want to do, and it's something to school yourself away from.

The dialogue should read:
The student said, "This course sucks."

"Nunh-unh."

"It does too and so do you."

I said, "You're out of here, pal."

If that sounds too plain, well, too bad--all that other stuff, those action verbs and adverbs, make the writing look like a military humvee painted pink and decked out with flowers. Just silly.

Hey, class, let's take a lecture break!I wrote the above material this past summer. Now (6/26/05) supper is over, the missus and I toasted our just-sold car we called 'Whitey'--we bought him new in '92) in cheap champagne. You want scenes & dialogue? How about silly champagne toasts?

We're sitting on the porch in near darkness, killing a bottle, surrounded by dogs who wonder if they are ever going to get a post-supper walk.

Me: Go with God, Whitey! (sip)

Missus: I'll drink to that (sip sip). Happy trails! (clink)


Dogs (in unison): Sober up, you guys--for the luvva pete, when do we head out?


That was just an intermission--now back to your regularly scheduled lecture: This course is about using the tools of fiction in writing non-fiction. You don't know as writers which of your tools are sharpest until you try using them, and once you find what you're sharpest doing, there still are no guarantees. On any given day, your muse may be out visiting buds and not be there to inspire you.Me, I am pretty good with dialogue, pretty poor with description--know thyself!

Most popular fiction is written like a movie treatment: quick scene setting , lots of dialogue, lots of visuals, and finding what you can do to transfer some of this to your nonfiction is what's up this week. PS: You'll notice I'm using the word 'dialogue' when actually I have only a single voice, a monologue! My bad! You can have more than one speaker!

3 Comments:

Blogger Dray said...

I kind of like the first example monologue. It's, um, organic :D

Monday, January 30, 2012 11:28:00 AM  
Blogger johngoldfine said...

We aim to please, dray.

Saturday, February 04, 2012 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan Larrabee said...

I think this will be fun to write! I like the theme ideas from the prompts, being a fly on the wall and just writing down what I hear and see. I don't think it will be too hard to create a piece from one of them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 4:31:00 PM  

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